Despite Resistance, Researchers Say Iowa Impacts Of WOTUS Are Limited

Aug 20, 2018

Some experts say Iowa farmers are largely exempt from a re-instated federal rule on water pollution. But the rule is still facing resistance from some ag groups.

A recent ruling by a federal judge in South Carolina means the Obama-era Waters of the United States or WOTUS Rule will go into effect in Iowa, and 25 other states. The rule, spurred by U.S. Supreme Court decisions, is meant to clarify which waterways fall under state jurisdiction and which fall under federal.

First put in place by the Obama Administration and later challenged by the Trump Administration, the WOTUS rule expands federal protections of streams, wetlands and marshes.

"In my opinion there is very little that this is going to do in terms of changing the things that farmers in Iowa can do." - Silvia Secchi, University of Iowa

Some agriculture advocates in Iowa and across the country have criticized the rule as federal overreach. Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill blasted the regulation during a June 2017 roundtable discussion with then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

"I have never seen a rule coming from government that is more consequential to agriculture than this one," Hill said.

But according to University of Iowa professor Silvia Secchi, farmers in Iowa are largely exempt from the changes. She studies environmental policy, water quality and the impacts of agriculture.

“In my opinion there is very little that this is going to do in terms of changing the things that farmers in Iowa can do," Secchi said. "This may not be the case further out West. And maybe this is why some of the national ag groups are concerned. But I think for the eastern parts of the United States, this has very little impact on farmer activities."

The American Farm Bureau Federation has pledged to appeal the recent federal ruling, which it calls "misguided" and "overbroad".

"To avoid widespread uncertainty and potential enforcement against ordinary farming activities in these already-uncertain times, we call on the administration to take immediate steps to limit the impact of this dangerous court decision," AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in a written release.

"We call on the administration to take immediate steps to limit the impact of this dangerous court decision." - Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau Federation

Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) applauded the Trump Administration's efforts to the delay implementation of the rule.

"The WOTUS rule and drafting process were flawed from the start. The Obama administration ignored serious concerns about the damage this overly broad rule could have caused," Grassley said in a written statement.

But Drake University law professor Neil Hamilton says Iowa farmers have long been exempt from regulations related to non-point source pollution. That refers to the diffuse flow of fertilizer, manure and other contaminants that seep off farmlands and feedlots and into lakes and streams, potentially causing algae blooms or killing fish. 

“Most of agricultural operations such as non-point source runoff from farm fields is also exempted from the application of the Clean Water Act," said Hamilton, who heads Drake University's Agricultural Law Center. "So even though many people have tried to pretend that the WOTUS rule had an impact on agriculture, the truth is it really didn’t.”

Hamilton called the opposition by ag groups, homebuilder associations and other interest groups an "aggressive effort at an intentional misrepresentation of the rule."

Secchi argued the resistance to the WOTUS Rule is part of a larger rejection of environmental regulation at the federal level.

"To me the opposition in the state is more of a matter of principal. Because there is a fear of federal regulations and there’s a fear that if you open the door to these new rules, you essentially don’t know how far they will go," Secchi said.

The Iowa Farm Bureau has not released a statement since the ruling came down, though a spokesman said the organization was "very much in support of rescinding the WOTUS rule when it was first announced." The Iowa Soybean Association declined to comment on the ruling's impact in the state, due to the ruling being "poorly defined." The Iowa Corn Growers Association did not respond to a request for comment.